Christopher Geidt’s resignation as the government’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests is a genuinely disturbing event for British public life in general, and for trust in government in particular. Because of the high importance of upholding standards codes, any resignation by the holder of this post would be disturbing. This would be particularly true if it was provoked by a substantive difference of ethical view between the prime minister and the adviser.
This is exactly what happened with Lord Geidt, after less than 14 months in the job. It was also what occurred when the previous adviser, Sir Alex Allan, resigned in November 2020. No such conflict had occurred under any of Sir Alex’s predecessors.
The common link between the two resignations is of course the current prime minister. Both advisers have quit because Boris Johnson wanted to override the ministerial code. Mr Johnson thinks that rules are for the birds. In Sir Alex’s case, he chose to ignore his findings about bullying accusations against Priti Patel. In Lord Geidt’s case, he asked his adviser to approve a Downing Street plan to create what the resignation letter calls “a deliberate and purposeful breach of the ministerial code”.
Lord Geidt says that was “an affront”. To suspend the code “to suit a political end” would make a mockery of the code itself and the adviser’s role. It appears that the issue in question was a proposal to maintain protective tariffs on Chinese steel imports, in breach of treaty rules, possibly to the advantage of steel owners who donate to the Conservative party.
This needs to be clarified as a matter of urgency, with the prime minister answering questions himself rather than hiding behind a Cabinet Office minister to do the job for him, as happened on Thursday. The suggestion from Downing Street that no decision has yet been taken about whether to appoint a successor implies Mr Johnson may prefer to be rid of any such invigilation. This would not be new either. He has a long track record of resenting the suggestion that rules observed by others should apply to him.
The trade argument appears to have been the last straw for Lord Geidt. But his cavalier treatment by Mr Johnson over Partygate and the Sue Gray report had already brought him to the verge of resignation. He was annoyed by Mr Johnson claiming that there had been a “miscommunication” between them. He told MPs this week that it was “reasonable” to suggest Mr Johnson may have broken the ministerial code. In his resignation letter, Lord Geidt admits that he had initially decided to soldier on, but by a small margin. Now he has abandoned that attempt.
Several questions arise. One is whether parliament can secure the facts behind the resignation and the trade argument. The public administration and constitutional affairs select committee must lead the way on this. Another is whether Lord Geidt’s investigation into Mr Johnson’s refurbishment of the Downing Street flat will now be published. The report was due this month. It must be published. Downing Street must not be allowed to use Lord Geidt’s immediate departure as an excuse for binning the report or stopping any inquiries.
But the larger issue is whether the cabinet, the Tory party and parliament have the courage to rein in this delinquent prime minister, if necessary by forcing him out of office. As a man and as a minister, Mr Johnson is a serial rule-breaker and an ethical vacuum. He trashes the conventions of democratic public life. He will go on defying the rules if he is allowed to. Parliamentarians and officials need to end the damage that the prime minister is doing to our politics, our democracy and our country. There is only one way to do that.